The humble carpenter (Channing Tatum) in his workshop.
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“Yes, my God is a she”: why Magic Mike XXL is a religious experience

A carpenter who knows it is better to give than to receive? Magic Mike is basically Jesus.

The glistening surface of the Magic Mike franchise seems to glorify hyper-masculinity: posters replete with straining bulges and protruding abs, dominant stances and douchebag hats. The most heavily-trailed scene sees Mike (Channing Tatum) hard at the traditionally masculine career he abandoned stripping for in the first film, dancing as he welds in his garage.

But these concerns are cast aside as soon as Mike reunites with his old entertaining buddies, the “Kings of Tampa”, for a road trip to Myrtle Beach to perform at a stripping convention: their “one last ride”. Once Mike is persuaded to join them, he is forced to leave behind all thoughts of his furniture-making business, as Richie (Joe Manganiello) chucks his work phone from the bus. Mike later responds by gathering up their old stripping outfits, equally symbolic of stereotypically macho pursuits: hurling firefighting and military uniforms onto the street. The trappings of traditional masculinity are quite literally thrown out of the window in the film’s opening minutes. We even learn, on the gang’s first stop, that “Big Dick” Richie (the guy with, surprise surprise, the biggest dick) is the one getting the least sex because women are so intimidated by his size. Magic Mike XXL frames patriarchal ideals of manhood as redundant when it comes to pleasing women, and therefore in satisfying heterosexual men themselves.

Much has been noted about Magic Mike XXL’s attention to the female gaze, which it does beautifully, especially when Richie performs in a service station for a bored cashier: the camera turning from her eyes, to his body, and back again. But, for better or worse, this is a film that devotes even more time mediating on the ways in which attention to the female gaze can be satisfying, liberating, and even redemptive, for the male “object”. 

Richie introduces the road trip to Mike, and the audience, as a spiritual journey: "Tomorrow we start the pilgrimage to Myrtle Beach for the convention!" That the destination of this journey, the site of communion with the divine, is a sweaty Florida convention hall thick with women's bodies, makes women the unequivocal subject of devotion. The male entertainers in Magic Mike don't just serve women in their performances - they deify them. As Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), their MC, calls to the crowd: “Are you ready to be worshipped? Are you ready to be exalted?"

This extends beyond the stage: attention to female desire is given narrative prominence. Like on any good pilgrimage, the male entertainers are periodically faced with obstacles which their sheer devotion can help them overcome. The key hurdles on the road to Myrtle Beach require the men to charm, pleasure and persuade women in positions of power. They obtain a car from Nancy (Andie McDowell) after spending an evening with her and her friends, exploring their sexual fantasies. Mike impresses host Rome enough for her to step in as MC, and charms Paris (Elizabeth Banks) into giving them a high profile slot at the convention. The men often break off from their journey to try and "make women smile", simply for the joy of it. “All we gotta to do is ask them what they want,” says Andre (Donald Glover), “and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing”. It’s a simple principle that they apply without discrimination to every woman they meet on their journey. Black, white, thin, fat, tall, short, confident, shy: all women are treated simultaneously as equals and individuals. "Yes, my God is a she," Mike says casually.

This is a film that explicitly and repeatedly frames attention to female desire as a near-religious act. But perhaps what makes Magic Mike XXL so radical is that the male entertainers are not demeaned or humiliated by their service to women: they, too, are “exalted” by it. Their pilgrimage finally sees the extent of their devotion reciprocated by a thunderous crowd of screaming women and a shower of dollar bills. Give, and it shall be given unto you. 

Sexual devotion is a mutual, fluid exchange, and, in these scenes, it lifts both the male entertainers and their audience to a higher spiritual status than most mere mortals. “You are all queens,” Rome tells the convention hall crowd. As the famous medieval religious poem, Pearl, tells us: in heaven (or, indeed, South Carolina), all women can simultaneously be Queen, thanks to the mysterious power of divine love. “We’re like healers or something,” says Andre.

So, while it might seem excessive to compare Magic Mike with Jesus... Magic Mike is basically Jesus. He is, after all, a carpenter who lays his tools aside to feed the 5,000-strong crowd of greedy women waiting to get their rocks off at Myrtle Beach, loving each of them indiscriminately, unconditionally. As the XXL poster so playfully suggests, this film is his second coming. The reunited Kings of Tampa even rename themselves “Resurrection”, for Christ’s sake.

It’s true that Magic Mike XXL is a film with its tongue wedged firmly in its cheek. But after decades of cinema that treats men like gods for viewing women as objects, it's heartening to see a film that glorifies men for treating women like gods.

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Now listen to Anna discussing Magic Mike on the NS pop culture podcast:

 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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